Let's face it, the one thing Microsoft has been good at has been designing hardware that looks downright butt-ugly.
Take a look at the original Xbox. It was a big black behemoth, with obtrusive vents and a green dot on the top. It's Xbox 360 didn't fare much better with its bowtie shape and unattractive off-white coloring. Fortunately, Microsoft hasn't been in the hardware-designing business much, only creating the gaming consoles and a handful of computer mice and gaming perpherals.
That's why it was like a slap in the face when the company introduced on Monday its sleek new computer tablet, the Microsoft Surface (OK, the company still has to work on its naming conventions).
Looking at the Surface, which is a thin tablet with a magnetic cover that doubles as a keyboard, I almost get the same chills I experience whenever Apple introduces a product. The Surface clearly was designed and manufactured with care, with its slim form factor, beveled edges and metallic exterior.
The Surface has a wide (16-by-9 aspect ratio, similar to today's HDTVs) 10.6-inch screen. The thinnest version is only 9.3mm (just slightly skinnier than the latest iPad). There are two models, the thinner one that runs an ARM processor similar to other tablets and a more powerful, slightly thicker (13.5mm) and heavier version that has an Intel i5 processor similar to what desktop PCs have. Both run different versions of the upcoming Windows 8 operating system.
Perhaps the most popular part of the tablet will be the Microsoft-designed magnetic case that covers the screen. Like the iPad, the new cover clicks over the screen with magnets. Unlike the iPad, however, the thin cover has a built-in keyboard. There will be two kinds, a cover with touch keys, and a slightly thicker one with physical keys for easier typing.
The ARM version is expected to be released by the end of the year, when the Windows 8 OS is released, with the Intel version sometime afterward. No pricing has been announced, although Microsoft claims it will be competitive with other tablets (probably $400 to $600).
Perhaps the biggest question many consumers might have is the Surface right for me?
If you own an iPad already, you may have no reason to buy a Surface. Why would you? Apple's tablet is easily the best, most intuitive on the planet. No Android device or Amazon Kindle can beat it in performance, user-interface design and library of apps.
But if you are in the market for a tablet for the first time, here are some reasons to consider the Surface. (Mind you, this is not a review, and I haven't used one yet. This is merely based on my initial impressions from Monday's press conference and subsequent news reports).
Performance • One big advantage to the Surface is that the hardware was designed and built by the same company that makes the operating system. In theory, that means the hardware was optimized for the OS and vice versa, and they should work well together. That's a big reason why Apple's iPad and iPhone are built so well and why the Android operating system (built by Google) doesn't work as smoothly with its phones and tablets (which are made by a variety of manufacturers, including Samsung and HTC).
Windows • Windows 8 is a big departure from older versions. This time, it uses tiles instead of icons and was developed with tablets in mind. The Intel version of the Surface will run a full-fledged copy of Windows 8 Pro, not a tablet version, meaning it should run regular Windows-based software, not just apps.
The thinner version of the Surface, called RT, will run only Windows apps, however, and that will be a downside. There are only a fraction of the apps for Windows that there are for the iPad, which number 750,000.
Keyboard • The addition of the cover/keyboard and the fact that the Surface also works with a digital stylus means the tablet is built to be as much a content-creation device as a content-consumption device. That means it could do just as well at creating documents, projects and other files as it is at playing movies, music and surfing the Internet. The iPad requires you to buy a separate third-party keyboard.
The proof of this is that the popular productivity suite, Microsoft Office, will be available for the Surface, something that is still not available for the iPad.
There are still a lot of other important questions that need to be answered before you seriously consider whether the Surface is right for you. There's the price, the overall speed and durability, the ease of use, and the battery life. But so far, Microsoft appears to have a bona fide hardware winner on its hands.
Google+: +Vincent Horiuchi